Apologies, Gentle Reader. This is a crucial topic about which I’ve written extensively in the past. Therefore, this post will be partly a reprint of material that previously appeared at Eternity Road, and partly a handful of new observations about the bellwether / celebritarian phenomenon in this year of Our Lord 2013.
1. Beautiful Bellwethers.
[This piece first appeared at Eternity Road in March of 2006.]
One of Harlan Ellison’s better short stories, “The Face Of Helene Bournouw,” focused on a (seeming) woman of unexampled physical beauty, who by the exploitation of that beauty deliberately led various culturally influential persons to their destruction. The conclusion of the story revealed that Helene Bournouw was actually a golem designed and built by a race of demons, whose intention was to induce Mankind to commit suicide. It was a striking fictional illustration of a point that had also been made by C. S. Lewis in “Screwtape Proposes A Toast:” many, many people will follow a bellwether wherever it might lead them, even unto death and into Hell.
The Bellwether Effect has become one of the strongest influences on popular opinion in our time. It’s not possible to tell whether it’s reached its maximum. Yet the emergence of bellwethers, and how they rise to command their legions of followers, are under-addressed phenomena, even today.
Your Curmudgeon’s first duty is to be clear about his subject matter. A commentator who puts forth a rational analysis — even an incorrect one, or one whose conclusions might seem inflammatory — is not a bellwether. Bellwethers do not persuade by reason; they attract their followers by their allure. The follower does not follow the bellwether because he’s said to himself, “This person is knowledgeable and smart, and his conclusions and proposals make good sense.” Rather, he follows due to the attractions of the bellwether’s glamor, charm, popularity, wealth, or some other characteristic unrelated to facts or reason.
A bellwether’s attractions operate below the rational level of our minds. He does not offer analysis; he seduces his followers into eschewing analysis.
Thus, in keeping with the oft-heard and multiply attributed observation that you cannot reason a man out of something he did not reason himself into, the Bellwether Effect is absolutely proof against rational counteraction. Detaching a follower from his chosen bellwether requires other tools, when it’s possible at all.
The Bellwether Effect is made possible solely by mass one-way communications and entertainment media. It was born of the modern Celebrity Culture, and will be coterminous with it.
The Celebrity Culture was born when it became possible for us to “invite singers and movie stars into our living rooms,” by the graces of television. Television in the Fifties emphasized pre-existent forms of entertainment; the model for “new” programs was vaudeville, as illustrated by The Ed Sullivan Show, Amateur Hour, and similar offerings. Nevertheless, broadcasters were short enough of material that they had to rebroadcast movies to fill in their many unoccupied hours. Thus, television multiplied the effective audience a movie and its stars could reach. This relatively cheap diversion that was accessible to most Americans and required nothing of them but a few cents’ worth of electricity, allowed many an entertainer to reach a large multiple of the audience he would have commanded otherwise.
The emergence of made-for-television dramas and comedies pyramided on top of the already established foundations of the celebrity culture. That is, it merely added “small screen” celebrities to those of the “big screen” and the stage. The later explosion of televised sports and other concatenated effects extended but didn’t change the underlying model. Television was the mechanism by which people became famous, even beloved, for attainments that had previously been ranked alongside more ordinary trades.
The sort of person who becomes famous through television will almost always be an entertainer. The sort of person who makes his living as an entertainer is emotion-oriented, unlikely to be gifted with large rational powers. Thus, many of our most conspicuous bellwethers follow bellwethers of their own: gurus and cultists, some of whom actively court the attentions of media celebrities. These, though less well known, wield enormous influence over us through the intermediation of their more famous disciples.
The Church of Scientology has been much in the news because of its participation in the Bellwether Effect. Prominent Scientologists are almost exclusively from the entertainment world; indeed, your Curmudgeon cannot name an exception. Yet so great is their sway that thousands of ordinary, un-famous Americans have been seduced into investigating Scientology on that basis alone. Fortunately for the country, the church’s doctrines are so bizarre, and its demands on its adherents so extreme, that few sane, stable persons succumb to its pitch.
Emotion-oriented persons are unlikely to analyze what they’ve been told. Rather, they’ll normally gauge how it makes them feel, and accept it or reject it accordingly. If it “feels right,” they’ll be unabashed about promulgating it. Other emotion-oriented persons will accept it from them. Thus, one who wants to have a large impact on popular opinion can do so by crafting an emotionally seductive message and first infecting a cadre of entertainers as his bellwether-lieutenants. The multiplier provided by their mass-media exposure, and the large number of persons susceptible to their allure, will almost always reward the remote, unseen bellwether-guru handsomely.
Interestingly, on those occasions when the bellwether-guru presents himself to the cameras and the microphones, he usually experiences a sharp fall-off in his influence. He’s insufficiently attractive to do what his entertainer-lieutenants do for him, and often quite zany enough to turn off many of those he might have seduced had he remained in the shadows. This suggests a possible counter to the Bellwether Effect to which we shall return presently.
Emotion is quicker-acting than reason; it is also much shorter in range. Thus, the emotion-oriented person is seldom concerned with the more distant effects of his actions, or the courses he recommends to others. It made him feel good when he said or did it; the rest is for the janitors and the maintenance crew.
We observe this aspect of the Bellwether Effect repeatedly when entertainers hold forth on economic matters. Time and again, we’ve heard entertainers recommend statist and quasi-statist redistribution schemes that would utterly destroy all the conditions required for productive effort. Even the seeming charitableness of one such as Bono, lead singer of U2, is fundamentally destructive, as decades of experience with international “aid” to Africa has shown. But to grasp before they’re implemented how these things would work out requires that one set aside the warm glow anticipated from their proposed charities and think through the effects those nostrums would have on human incentives. That dampens the glow, which makes it unpalatable to the emotion-oriented bellwether.
There’s little doubt that most such persons really do mean well, but there’s just as little doubt that most of them lack both the rational resources and the inclination to work out the consequences of their actions. Those that possess the necessary knowledge and intelligence are usually uninterested in using them. When more rational, better informed persons dare to challenge them, their usual response is emotional: “You don’t care about the poor / the downtrodden / the oppressed / the victims of racism, sexism, ageism, etc.” Whether the riposte is merely tactical or sincerely meant, it averts the unpleasantness that would come from confronting their rational shortcomings, and the damage they could do (and often have already done) by the exploitation of their allure.
Combatting the Bellwether Effect is one of the imperative tasks of rational persons of our time. The problem is stiff: rational persons prefer to work with reason, to which those susceptible to the Bellwether Effect are generally numb. Our opportunities lie in our ability to reason out the opportunities for and applicability of emotional counteraction.
To be sure, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Thus, if it’s possible to ward a friend or loved one against the Bellwether Effect ab initio, it’s always the best course. Raising rational, sensible children, determined to be well informed and to follow the dictates of sound logic, is a primary duty for this reason among others.
But not everyone within one’s orbit can be shielded in this fashion. In dealing with those who are susceptible to the Bellwether Effect, one must accept that what’s done is done. The emotion-oriented person is seldom re-educable, even when it would be right and proper to try. He must be approached on the same level as did his chosen bellwether: his emotional reactions to what he’s been told and shown.
Excepting some short-term effects, the consequences of bad policy are always bad. Those consequences are the rational man’s tools for dealing with the emotion-oriented: he must start from the emotional impact of the consequences and work backward.
Does emotion-oriented Smith favor massively increased “foreign aid” to Africa? Rational Jones must work backward from the consequences of the aid to date: the empowerment of dictators, the slaughter and oppression of subject minorities, and the intensification of poverty and misery throughout the Dark Continent. The consequences provide the emotional spearhead; if they penetrate Smith’s preconceptions, and if he can be led to associate them with the “aid,” Jones has a chance of swaying him.
Does Smith favor a cessation of the American liberation efforts in the Middle East? Jones must work backward from the consequences of other American withdrawals from similarly plagued trouble spots: Iran in 1979, Vietnam in 1973, China in 1948-49. The horrors that followed might lead Smith to question his stance; if so, and if Jones can show that American engagement on behalf of oppressed and threatened peoples doesn’t have even worse consequences, Smith might be won over.
Does Smith favor the institution of a Canadian-style nationalized health care system? Jones must work backward from the consequences of those systems already in place: the long delays in obtaining needed treatment, the political favoritism involved in the dispensation of such treatment, and the decline in the quality of care available to all. The notion that persons who would have been capable of buying a high-quality hip replacement in a week must wait two to three years for a replacement of questionable soundness might jar Smith out of his groove.
But your Curmudgeon’s focus is not entirely on persuading others to abandon bad policy prescriptions; it’s more on the importance of the mechanism by which they attached to those prescriptions: the Bellwether Effect. The follower is emotionally attached, not merely to the policy prescription, but to the bellwether who urged it on him. This attachment is seldom easily severed; indeed, it’s questionable whether one should attempt to do so.
If Smith is firmly attached to bellwether Davis, rather than attempting to weaken or destroy that attachment, Jones might prefer to suggest limiting its scope. Glamor, popularity, etc. are assets applicable to particular, limited purposes; they are inapplicable to politics and economics. Perhaps after he’s reversed himself on a few specific issues, Smith can be led to see that. Perhaps the ultimate source of Davis’s preachments can be dragged out from under his rock and held up to the light; few can withstand such scrutiny. But above all, it’s vital that Jones never attack Davis’s sincerity; if Smith is to reach the conclusion that Davis is insincere, he must do so himself.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with an interest in celebrities, as vapid as they usually are. It’s a bit disturbing that so many Americans, particularly young people, revere them as demigods, yet can’t be bothered to learn the names of their local legislators or stay abreast of political developments. But this malady doesn’t require completely re-engineering the mindsets of millions; it only requires that we broaden their focus.
When Dan Quayle suggested that Candace Bergen’s “Murphy Brown” character was hardly the typical pattern for an unwed mother, he was engaging the Celebrity Culture frontally, and received a vicious collective rebuff for it. His experience indicates the power of that culture, its willingness to offer bellwethers to the country, and its displeasure at being depicted as a negative force. Quayle was absolutely right, but he gained no ground for responsible parenthood or role-modeling; indeed, he might have lost some.
Perhaps the effort properly belongs to those of us who have the assets the bellwethers don’t possess: the advantages of proximity and the solidity of real life. After all, Murphy Brown didn’t really have to raise a baby. Sharon Stone doesn’t have to negotiate with the terrorist-insurgents in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Bono doesn’t have to cope with the consequences of the well-meant money river drowning Africa, whose volume he’s worked to increase. None of these celebrities makes house calls to push his point of view.
Gentle Reader, don’t suggest it to them, would you please?
2. The Celebritarian Revolution.
It’s one thing for a political movement to enlist celebrities as bellwether-spokesmen. It’s quite another to put them forward as candidates for high office.
It started quite a while ago, of course. Nor is the phenomenon of celebrities-as-public-officials entirely noxious; after all, we did have Ronald Reagan. But it says something about our political discourse that’s quite unpleasant.
It’s never been perfectly clear what the qualifications for public office should be, apart from the age / residence / citizenship requirements stated in the Constitution. Obviously there’s quite a lot of disagreement on the subject, or we wouldn’t have empty-headed pseudo-feminist twit Ashley Judd plausibly bidding for a Senate seat, or the vicious and ignorant Al Franken actually occupying one.
As I noted in the essay above, this sort of development arises entirely from one-way mass communications. The celebrities of the entertainment world are pushed upon us by the mass media. (These days, persons with even less plausible claims to our time and attention get a great deal of it; anyone familiar with the Real Housewives phenomenon will immediately concur.) When a well-known celebrity manages to identify himself with some political cause du jour, he acquires an “entering wedge” into the political sphere. Should he, or his handlers and promoters, decide that that would be a profitable direction to purse, he’s likely to address other political subjects, such that his fans think of him ever more as a political figure. Over time, that can build him a spurious resume as a political thinker — spurious because the typical celebrity does about as much actual thinking as a kumquat.
But what matters in the sequel isn’t the amount of hard thought or study the celebrity puts into his political stances; it’s his personal attractions, the extent of his media exposure, and the size and responsiveness of his fan base. These things, entirely divorced from what stances he promotes or how he reached and rationalizes them, are occasionally sufficient to put him into public office.
The master strategists of the Democrat Party are aware of this. They’ve gone out hunting for media figures to promote as candidates for high office, and have pushed them as if their screen credits / Billboard ratings / batting averages should be qualifications enough for anything. And a substantial fraction of Americans who lean leftward are buying into it.
(Yes, batting averages count too. Consider how frequently prominent athletes, including quite a few who’ve never previously spoken about politics in public, are solicited for their political views by interviewers. That’s bad enough; what’s worse are the many who respond to such questions in full seriousness, instead of modestly changing the subject.)
In a sense, Barack Hussein Obama is the icon of the Celebritarian Revolution. After all, he had no resume when he ascended to the United States Senate, and he had damned little more when he was elected president. His most important personal assets are dark skin, moderately good looks, and a winning way of reading from a teleprompter. In a rational society, that would make him a waiting-list candidate for a sportscaster’s position; in the United States of 2013, it’s put him in the Oval Office.
Al Franken already sits in the Senate. If Mitch McConnell and the Kentucky GOP aren’t careful, Ashley Judd might soon join him there. And remember that success evokes emulation: every time a celebrity attains a public office, it persuades other celebrities to attempt the same. Some of them will succeed.
If the prospect of a majority-Celebritarian political elite doesn’t frighten you half out of your corn flakes, Gentle Reader, check your pulse: you may have died and not noticed. But then, if the awareness that the finger on the Big Red Button belongs to Nobel Peace Prize honoree Barack Hussein Obama hasn’t already scared you translucent, you might just be a celebrity yourself.